Communications Capabilities of the State Operations Center
The Texas State Operations Center (SOC) within the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) maintains a variety of communications capabilities. The systems range from amateur radios to satellite communications platforms to systems capable of issuing warnings directly to the public.
One of the original goals of the SOC communications systems was to provide backup emergency communications during periods of normal communications outages during disasters. Another goal included the ability to issue warnings to the public if local governmental warning systems were unable to do so during a disaster. Over the years, as communications systems and techniques have improved and advanced, so have the capabilities of the SOC. Today, these systems are used during day-to-day operations by TDEM staff as part of their normal duties. This article describes some of those systems.
Amateur (ham) radio stations for the RACES & MARS programs
Amateur Radio: Amateur radio (also called ham radio) is an integral part of TDEM, and support participation in amateur radio programs can be traced back to the 1970s. The SOC has a variety of amateur radio systems. Amateur radio is a service recognized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that allows licensed amateur radio operators to communicate across open and free airwaves. Amateur radios systems supporting the SOC have evolved from vacuum tube-based radios to solid state units that can integrate traditional Morse code as well as digital programs and systems directly to computers. The state system is supported by amateur radio operators, commonly called “Hams.” In 2009, the SOC began upgrading the amateur radio systems that support the disaster districts (DDCs). The SOC deployed portable amateur radio “Go Kits” to the DDCs to support emergency communications during disasters. The DDCs are supported by Hams registered with the state Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) (pronounced RAY-SEES) program. RACES provides backup emergency communications support from the DDCs to the SOC or DDC to local Emergency Operating Centers (EOCs) that have ham radios installed for emergency communications.
DPS Radios: The SOC also uses several DPS radios systems that provide the SOC with the ability to monitor and communicate with a variety of state and local governmental entities. The systems range from an older ASTRO fixed base unit to modern APX radios installed in our portable Mobile Satellite Radio/Telephone units (MSAT) and TDEM vehicles. We also maintain a small cache of handheld XTS radios that can be issued out to staff operating in the field or a disaster-impacted environment.
FEMA HF Radios: FEMA has installed long haul HF (High Frequency) radios in the majority of state-level operations centers (SEOCd). Known as FNARS (FEMA National Radio System), the units are designed to provide back-up communications to the National Warning System (NAWAS). The current FNARS radio was installed in 2012, replacing an older legacy unit installed in the mid-1990s. The current FNARS radio is computer controlled and has such features as “HF Chat,” which allows text messages to be sent between FNARS radios. The radio can be operated manually by entering a desired operating frequency or by using Automatic Link Establishment (ALE). ALE is a process where the radio scans selected frequencies to determine the best operating frequency for that period.
Handsets for DPS mobile radio and MSAT units
Satellite Communications: TDEM also maintains and operates a variety of satellite communications systems. The Iridium Communication satellite telephones provide telephone communications in areas where there is little or no cell phone service. The Mobile Satellite Radio (MSAT/SATRAD/MSV) systems provide telephone and radio communications over satellite. The MSATs are installed in three configurations: fixed, vehicle and portable “Go Kit.” These satellite systems are used routinely to provide communications connectively by staff operating throughout the state.
Public Alerting – Warning: As a primary warning point, the SOC maintains and operates a variety of warning and alerting systems. Located in the SOC’s radio room are both legacy and next generation public warning systems. The legacy Emergency Alert System (EAS) can provide traditional alerts and warnings via radio and television. The next generation Digital EAS system is capable of providing alerts and warnings to traditional radio and television as well to cell phones, mass notification systems and other digital formats.
As impressive as these systems are, the most important piece is the staff required to operate them. As older systems are upgraded and new systems are added, the staff has to train and become familiar with the equipment. SOC and field staff operate a variety of communications equipment on a daily basis. Without their proficiency, all of this technology would not be nearly as effective.
Antennas on a TDEM response vehicle supporting multiple communications platforms
Amateur (ham) radio “Go Kit